“For the longest time, I thought I didn’t fit in anywhere… among other kids straddling lines between two different cultures, there were times I felt like an alien… I wonder if fitting in is important after all.”
Tanaz Bhathena’s new novel, The Beauty of the Moment, documents the myriad confusions that cloud the minds of teenagers in the cusp of adulthood.
In the book, we see one of the protagonists Susan, who recently moved schools from Saudi Arabia to Canada struggling with the idea of pursuing art as a profession, mainly because her parents dissuade her from doing so.
Bhathena, who has also lived in both the places, published the lauded YA novel A Girl Like That last year following up with a new book this year. What was her family’s reaction to her wanting to become a writer?
“I knew I wanted to write books by the time I was thirteen years old. My parents, however, wanted me to follow a more traditional career path and become an accountant. As a teen, I wasn’t rebellious and it took me a much longer time than it does Susan in the book to confront my parents about what I really wanted. I was in my final year at university, going through networking sessions with recruiters from CA firms. I was also desperately unhappy. I knew I needed to make a choice and shift careers—and it was exactly the right thing to do.”
I knew I wanted to write books by the time I was thirteen years old. My parents, however, wanted me to follow a more traditional career path and become an accountant.
But she adds that dreams don’t come without their challenges. It took her a long time to get her first book published—around 10 years—partly because she was working full time to pay the bills, but also because publishers didn’t connect with the story or wanted her to make substantive changes to the plot – “After adult publishers rejected the book for being “too dark,” we approached the YA market. And that’s where I found my audience. My current publishers (in India, the US and Canada) are great—they have never boxed me in creatively or asked me to focus on a certain type of story.”
The book is told from the point of view of Susan and Malcolm, the latter has been raising hell in his school since his mother passed away when he was 15. To highlight the differences that arise from growing up in two different countries with different cultures, she felt it was absolutely necessary to let Susan and Malcolm tell their stories in their own voices. That a third person limited or omniscient POV can sometimes create distance and she wanted the reading experience to be real time and immediate.
Although The Beauty of the Moment hinges on the love story between Susan and Malcolm which is at once tender and realistic, it also focuses on the relationship Susan shares with Alisha, her best friend in Jeddah, her mother who loves her dearly but also doesn’t understand her at times and also the new friends she makes at her school in Canada.
As an adult, I understand my mother a lot better than I did as a teen and I really wanted to highlight the conflicts that can arise between a parent and child during that time.
She informs that Alisha and Susan’s relationship came naturally to her because she went to an all-girls school in Saudi Arabia and faced similar circumstances where she grew apart from her best friends after moving to Canada. But depicting Susan and her mother’s relationship was a little more intentional.
“As an adult, I understand my mother a lot better than I did as a teen and I really wanted to highlight the conflicts that can arise between a parent and child during that time. Recently, I was at a book club for teen girls who had read The Beauty of the Moment and several girls came up to me and said that they were able to understand their moms better after reading the book.”
Since the characters in both The Beauty of the Moment and A Girl Like That have lived or are based out of the places she has lived as well, does the author believe in the ‘write what you know’ adage?
She informs that it really depends on what kind of story she wants to write at a particular time. That when she can’t put in the appropriate research for a story (because of travel restrictions, etc.), she will err on the side of caution and change the setting to a place more familiar to me.
“As a reader, I often have come across books that depict a community or country that I’m familiar with and have seen really poor representations of the same. As a writer, I want to avoid adding to that problem. If I put out a book, it needs to be well researched—even if the setting is a place I’ve lived in for 15 years. Readers deserve authenticity in the books that they pick up and I do my best to give them that.”
Bhathena feels that life, in general, inspires her writing. She can watch the news or see something happen on the street and get an idea for a story. She’s also inspired by art and history. Although she fell into young adult fiction by accident, she strongly advocates for more diversity in the genre because when she started out, the author didn’t think she would find an audience in the teen market—mainly because she never saw people like her represented in YA books. But she was happy to find out that many teens loved her book.
“As a teenager, I never saw myself represented in the books that I read—and simply thought that teens aren’t interested in reading about people like me. This idea was promoted by the North American publishing industry, where they kept saying that books about people of colour won’t sell. Time and statistics have proven this wrong, with so many diverse books hitting The New York Times Bestseller list. It’s important for books to be mirrors and windows, and teens, in my experience, are interested in both of these experiences.
Moreover, kids in schools learn by example. If they don’t see an author of colour writing books with protagonists who are also POC, then they won’t believe that their stories are relevant. This is why it’s so important to have stories which are also #ownvoices.”
Bhathena is working on a fantasy duology next whose first part, Hunted by the Sky would release next year. The books are set in a fantasy world inspired by medieval India. A teen girl with a star-shaped birthmark has been prophesized to kill a tyrant king and she’s aided in that mission with a group of warrior women and the boy she falls in love with.
She adds, “I can’t reveal too much until the official description releases, but I’ve had an amazing time writing this series so far with its powerful, magic-wielding female characters.”
Photo Credit: Annette Seip/Nettie Photography